Continuing on from yesterday’s introduction to the Catholic versus Protestant mindsets with regard to Holy Scripture.

For a start, what is sola Scriptura?  It is one of the five solas of the Reformation.  Sola Scriptura establishes the Bible as the final authority in faith and practice.  However, it is informed by writings of the Doctors of the early Church, which will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Martin Luther — an Augustinian monk — explained sola Scriptura this way in the Smalcald Articles:

The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.

At the Diet of Worms, Luther stated:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason-I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.

In his 1559 edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote:

… we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors-in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.

The Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge, wrote in the 19th century (emphases mine):

Again, Protestants admit that as there has been an uninterrupted tradition of truth from the protevangelium to the close of the Apocalypse, so there has been a stream of traditionary teaching flowing through the Christian Church from the day of Pentecost to the present time. This tradition is so far a rule of faith that nothing contrary to it can be true. Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed. They constitute one body, having one common creed. Rejecting that creed, or any of its parts, is the rejection of the fellowship of Christians, incompatible with the communion of saints, or membership in the body of Christ. In other words, Protestants admit that there is a common faith of the Church, which no man is at liberty to reject, and which no man can reject and be a Christian.

So, why, then, do Catholics say ‘every Protestant is a law unto himself’?  Could it be Catholics are confusing sola Scriptura with solo Scriptura?  

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the mainline Protestant denominations have confessions of faith or articles of religion to which they adhere.  There are shorter versions of these for children and longer versions for adults.  Lutheran and Calvinist seminarians, in particular, study these confessions as well as writings from the earliest Doctors of the Church.  Such in-depth study helps them ensure that they understand Scripture correctly in order to preac it to their future congregations.  Laymen, similarly, are well-versed in their respective confessions of faith as well as Scripture.  The confessions of faith are generally prooftexted, so that the correct biblical basis is always given, leaving no room for error.  

The problem lies in confusing sola Scriptura and the role of the solas altogether.  In the link at the top to my post about the solas, readers can see how they work together. 

The difficulty comes when an ill-educated, independent preacher interprets Scripture by himself and, consequently, distorts the message because he has no confessions of faith.  This misuse of Scripture alone with no other solas, no foundation from the early Church and no formal confession of faith is called solo Scriptura.  This is an important distinction Catholics would do well to make.

Keith Mathison, writing in ‘Solo Scriptura: the Difference a Vowel Makes’ for Modern Reformation, says that this Protestant phenomenon came about in the 19th century and has its roots in North America, which was undergoing the Second Great Awakening at the time. It continues today in some — not all — independent churches as well as the emergent church. Mathison tells us (and has much more at the link):

The Bible itself simply does not teach “solo” Scriptura Christ established his church with a structure of authority and gives to his church those who are specially appointed to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2-4). When disputes arose, the apostles did not instruct each individual believer to go home and decide by himself and for himself who was right. They met in a council (Acts 15:6-29). Even the well-known example of the Bereans does not support “solo” Scriptura (cf. Acts 17:10-11; cf. vv. 1-9). Paul did not instruct each individual Berean to go home and decide by himself and for himself whether what he was teaching was true. Instead, the Bereans read and studied the Scriptures of the Old Testament day by day with Paul present in order to see whether his teaching about the Messiah was true.

This was an early type of systematic theology, which has been used continuously from the days of the early Church to look at particular topics and carefully examine all scriptural references to them.  Such studies are highly complex and have been to refute heresies from the beginning of Christianity.  Many Protestant seminaries require students to take courses in systematic theology.  Studies begin by examining how God has revealed Himself to mankind in the Bible; this is called prolegomena.  Courses then include the study of the Bible (bibliology), the doctrine of God (theology proper), Jesus (Christology), the Holy Spirit (pneumatology), humanity (anthropology), salvation (soteriology), the Church (ecclesiology), the end of the world (eschatology) and angelic beings (angelology).  

I have highlighted the paragraph to demonstrate that seminary training and church doctrine — even Protestant — just doesn’t get done on the back of an envelope. 

One professor of systematic theology, Robert Letham, puts the case this way.  Note the support of sola Scriptura, not solo Scriptura (H/T Helm’s Deep for the quote):

Biblical theology can never furnish the basis for a confession of faith, since the church is called to defend the gospel in words other than those of the Bible. Its task is not simply to repeat the nuances of the biblical authors, for it is all too often the meaning of the biblical language that is at stake. Its task is to bring out “the sense of Scripture” which includes not merely its express statements set in their redemptive-historical context – important though that may be for biblical exegesis – but also its entailments and implications.

Tomorrow: The early doctors of the Church and Sola Scriptura